U.S. intelligence and national security officials, in particular, were becoming increasingly incensed by China’s actions. The Obama administration began to take more aggressive steps against Chinese cyberspying, indicting five Chinese military hackers in 2014 for a massive espionage campaign targeting U.S. companies—the first-ever public U.S. indictment of nation-state hackers—and threatening Beijing with sanctions. But senior U.S. officials under Obama still believed there were key, if narrowing, areas to carve out mutual cooperation with their Chinese counterparts.
One focus was on easing the visa process. In 2014, on a visit to Beijing, Obama announced that the United States and China had reached a reciprocal agreement to extend visas from their current one-year span to 10 years for business and tourist visas, and five years for student visas—a major potential boost for tourism and educational exchanges.
Some U.S. intelligence officials were aghast. On the Chinese side, the visa extension gambit was “an MSS-led endeavor,” said a current senior U.S. intelligence official, referring to the Ministry of State Security, China’s main civilian intelligence organization. “It was an intelligence-based process, where they wanted to get to a place where they could have a 10-year visa to the U.S., instant access in and out of the country without the U.S. government knowing.” There were “hundreds of meetings at the White House” on this issue, the official recalled. “Obama was hellbent on getting some negotiated pact. And the administration, as much as we argued with it, didn’t see the big deal. They saw it as a promulgation for trade and academia—all things that are true, but the entire [intelligence community] and FBI said, ‘Whoa whoa whoa, they’re going to increase their already excessive nontraditional collection activities.’”